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During a recent Pirate-Mets game, Pittsburgh's radar gun measured a fastball by New York pitcher Dwight Gooden at 100 mph. It was the first time that Gooden had been clocked at 100 mph, a benchmark that has long fascinated baseball fans. In 1914, Walter Johnson's fastball, measured against a speeding motorcycle, supposedly traveled 97 mph. In a pregame stunt arranged by Senators owner Clark Griffith in 1946, a Bob Feller fastball was timed by a photoelectric-cell device the Army used to determine the speed of projectiles. The unofficial computation cited by the Hall of Fame puts Feller's fastest pitch at 107.9 mph.
Today's method for measuring the velocity of pitches is more accurate and a lot simpler. Since 1975, two companies, Jugs Pitching Machines and Decatur Electronics, have been supplying major league teams with radar guns that can give a speed reading on any pitched ball. In every big league park—and at a lot of minor league and amateur fields, too—scouts can be found behind home plate with these guns pointed at oncoming pitches.
Decatur's ProSpeed gun retails for $1,224 and is commonly called the "slow gun," because it measures the speed of the ball when it's about 10 feet from home plate, by which time most pitches have lost about four mph. The Jugs gun costs $1,300 and is known as the "fast gun" because early models, which are still widely used, measure the speed of the ball at approximately four feet from where it has left the pitcher's hand. Two years ago, Jugs added another model that can determine the ball's speed just after it leaves the pitcher's hand as well as within 10 feet of the plate. Says Reds reliever Rob Dibble, "My best is 101 on the Jugs, 99 on the [ProSpeed]. When I get to 100 on the [ProSpeed], I'll have done something."
But how much does speed really matter? Some baseball people believe that scouts depend on the gun too much. "The gun is a terrible thing. Scouts turn guys 'down because of it," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "If you saw John Tudor pitch in college, he was throwing 83 mph. With the gun, you forget about movement or how he hides the ball."
"It's a tool that gives you perspective, not a final answer," says Texas pitching coach Tom House, a junkballer who pitched in the majors for 6½ seasons. "But scouts don't scout who can pitch anymore. They miss a lot of guys now. Guns scare them off."
Mel Didier, a highly respected Dodger scout, finds the guns helpful in evaluating a pitcher who is coming off an injury. However, says Didier, "there's much more to pitching than velocity. Many pitchers in the major leagues never break 84 miles per hour, but their ball sinks or tails late. You have to pitch in and out, up and down. Eddie Mathews once told me, 'I don't care if the guy is throwing 100 miles per hour. If it's the same velocity and it's straight, he may get us [hitters] the first time. He may get us the second. But we're going to turn that motor up, and we're going to get him. It's the guys who change speeds that bother us the most.' "
Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella thinks the gun is a useful tool during games. "We use the gun to monitor a pitcher's velocity," he says. "Any sudden drop is a sign to get someone ready."
For Dibble, the obsession with radar guns has become "a macho thing." He says, "It makes the other team say, "Wow, he throws this hard.' But my best nights are when my fastball is in the mid-90s. I get more movement then."
The Rangers' Nolan Ryan, who was clocked at 100.9 in 1974 when he pitched for the Angels, says he has never looked at his pitching chart after a game to check on the velocity of his best fastball. "Anyway, the guns fluctuate," he says. "I remember we put two guns side by side on the same pitch, and they came up with different readings. When I rate a pitcher, velocity is one of the last things I look at."